What foods can give a person a staph infection?

By Susan Brewer, Ph.D., University of Illinois,
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Food-borne staph illness is caused when the organism Staphylococcus aureus produces toxin in a food which is subsequently consumed.  The most common sources of staph are human hands, nose, and throat.  The organism needs both protein and carbohydrate (starch) to grow and doesn’t compete well with other organisms.  The most likely scenario for a food-borne staph intoxication is that a high carb, protein-containing food like macaroni casserole is cooked, which kills the majority of microorganisms originally associated with the ingredients (the competitors of staph).  The casserole is then somehow recontaminated (by human hands, sneezing, coughing), and then held in the danger zone 
(40°F to 140°F), usually warm enough to allow the organisms to grow, for enough time for the organism to produce enough toxin to make you sick.  The amount of time the food has to be held at an abuse temperature depends on the temperature and the original level of contamination.
(An abuse temperature is any temperature is any temperature outside of the recommended storage temperature for the product: canned foods should be stored at  less than 90ºF, cooked foods at below 40°or above 140°F, and refrigerated foods should be at or below 40°F) 
When a people  consume this contaminated food, whether they get sick at all, or whether they get a full-blown case of staph intoxication, depends on the amount of toxin that has been produced into the food and the amount they eat.  The most common foods associated with staph intoxication are those with mixed ingredients such as potato salad, macaroni salad, poultry dressing, and hot vegetable mixtures in sauces.  They are high in starch and contain some protein, and are likely to be served hot, especially over a period of time, but they need rapid refrigeration after serving.
U.S.D.A. 2008. Bad Bug Book. “Foodborne Pathogenic Microorganisms and Natural Toxins Handbook.” Staphylococcus aureus


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